We Had The Ledo Road To Build

by William J. Pribyl

On March 8, 1942, the invading Jap armies captured Rangoon, closed the last overhead supply route to China and surged northward to eventually overrun all of Burma. General Joseph W. Stilwell, lacking the men and equipment to offer suitable resistance, was forced to retreat. It is then that he made his famous statement, "I claim we took a hell of a beating. We got run out of Burma, and it's humiliating as hell. I think we ought to find what caused it, go back and retake it."

It was obvious that a new supply artery would have to be opened if the U.S. was to carry out its commitments to China. And in order to open a road, the Japs would have to be driven back. On October 3, 1943, Col. Lewis A. Pick was flown from the States to assume command of the road-building project. On his first evening in Ledo-October 16, 1943- Col. Pick summoned the key men of his command to a staff meeting. "I've heard the same story all the way from the States", he told them. "It's always the same-the Ledo Road can't be built. Too much mud, too much rain, too much malaria. From now on we're forgetting that defeatist attitude. The Ledo Road is going to be built, mud, rain, and malaria be damned."

Col. Pick immediately initiated a series of bold measures. Round-the-clock schedules were started. Oil was burned in buckets when the supply of lights gave out. Road Headquarters were moved to the point. Col. Pick told General Stillwell later, "I can't build you a jeep trail, but I'll build you a road that will handle truck traffic and it will be an all weather road. Tell me when you want it." Unquestionably one of the engineering marvels of the world, the 507-mile Ledo Road, built by American soldiers, combined with the Chinese built 572-mile Burma Road was renamed the Stilwell Road with a total length of 1079 miles. The Ledo Road began in Ledo, India. Ledo is located in Northwestern Assam very close to the Burma border. Prior to December 1942, the Ledo area was a frontier tract, visited only by game hunters and gem traders. A special permit was required to enter the jungle and travelers waived all liability for their personal safety when they left Ledo. The jungle is not an exotic green wilderness of gigantic trees, rare flowering plants, swarms of monkeys swinging from vines, writhing snakes and vicious animals. The jungle, in reality, is tall and dark and silent as death. It is an ageless confusion of tangled, matted undergrowth which confines progress to dim, narrow trails. The worst enemies of man in the jungle are mosquitoes, leeches and typhus-carrying mites. The Ledo Road doesn't bypass swamps or rough mountain terrain so the drivers of the big trucks laden with supplies can have an easier life. It lunges headlong into the precipitous Patkai Mountains, jungle- tailbone of the Himalayas which separates Assam from Burma. It clings precariously to perpendicular mountainsides, leaps across turbulent mountain rivers and then it plungers breathlessly down into Burma's vast Hukawng Valley. The first 270 miles of this Road was forged through solid virgin jungle that had only been pierced by jungle trails. Leaving the Patkais, the Ledo Road cuts across the swampy Hukawng, straight as the flight of an arrow. It crosses the bloody battleground of Jambu Bum Pass, where men of Merrill's Marauders battled the Japs for control of the gateway to Mogaung Valley, and drops gradually into the Mogaung's marshlands, high with elephant grass.

Beyond Warazup on the Mogaung River, the Ledo Road skirts low, jungled hills which once were known only to big game hunters in search of elephant and tiger. West of Myitkyina, it bridges the broad Irrawaddy River with the longest floating bridge in the world, and cuts sharply southward over rolling hill country to the teak groves of Bhamo. At this point the Road veers sharply to the East and tops 5,000 foot mountains, following the ancient caravan route used by Marco Polo on his journeys into China centuries ago. For more than a hundred miles it winds above emerald gorges matted with vegetation, then emerges upon the barren Shweli River Valley. In the Shweli Valley, the Ledo Road leaves the jungle behind and threads its way across terrain dotted the round, naked hills up to Wanting on the China-Burma border. On February 4, 1945, Colonel Lewis A. Pick (now Major General) led a convoy of 113 vehicles over the Stillwell Road (Ledo Road plus Burma Road) and entered Kunming, China, breaking the land blockade. For the first time in the world's history, India and China were joined by an overland supply route.

Some interesting statistics in building the Ledo Road:

Uncharted Jungle:

The first 270 miles of the Ledo Road (Northern Burma) was forged through solid, virgin jungle, previously pierced only by primitive tribal trails.

Monsoon Rains:

Of all the discomforts and hardships handed the men who built the Road through the jungles, the monsoon rains were the worst. In the jungles of Burma, the monsoon rains began in May and end in October. Rainfall exceeds 200 inches in many places.

Combat Obstacles:

As the Road progressed, it was necessay to interrupt the construction to allow combat engineers to move up so the Japs could be driven back. At times the Construction Engineers were so close to the front lines that the lead bulldozers were armor plated and survey parties carried heavy arms.

Earth Moved, Drainage:

13,000,000 cubic yards of earth were moved, enough to build a solid earthen wall three feet wide and ten feet high from New York to San Francisco. If all of the culvert pipe used in the drainage system of the Ledo Road were placed end to end, it would form a continuous pipeline 105 miles long.

Mud-Gravel:

Gravel and rock were needed to surface the road bed. The earth over which the road passes was a sandy loam that whipped into a liquid mud during the monsoon season. Gravel was hauled 25-30 miles from riverbeds. It would take a string of railroad cars 470 miles long to move 1,383,000 cubic yards of gravel placed on the road.

Bridges, Logging:

Ten major rivers and 155 secondary streams needed to have bridges built between Ledo and Wanting. The longest floating bridge in the worlds crosses the Irrawaddy River below Myitkyina. Lumbering and logging operations were carried out on an unprecedented scale. Over 822,000 cubic feet of lumber were taken from the jungle for construction of the Road.

Signal, Medic, Quartermaster, Pipeline Engineers:

Never before was a greater coordination between Service branches displayed than in the construction of the Ledo Road. White and colored troops worked feverishly through driving rains and waist deep mud to support the efforts of this historic project.

The ingenuity and efficiency of industrial workers on countless production lines back home, and the blood, sweat and tears of American men in uniform, made this lifeline a reality by pushing through the greatest engineering project ever undertaken in time of war.

Note: The author of this article is a China-Burma-India veteran. He served in the CBI Theater from 1944 to 1946. He made a single round trip over the Ledo portion of the Stilwell Road. He has written several articles published in the Senior Digest on operations in the China-Burma-India Theater.


Is the gateway to India at Bombay,
Really as beautiful as they say?
Don't rightly know, Ma'am. Did my part
Breakin' point in the jungle's heart;
Blasted the boulders, felled the trees
With red muck oozin' around our knees,
Carved the guts from the Patkai's side,
Dozed our trace, made it clean and wide,
Metalled and graded, dug and filled;
We had the Ledo Road to build.

Well, surely your saw a burning ghat,
Fakirs, rope-tricks, and all of that.
Reckon I didn't. But way up ahead
I tended the wounded, buried the dead.
For I was a Medic, and little we knew
But the smell of sickness all day through,
Mosquitoes, leeches, and thick dark mud
Where the Chinese spilled their blood
After the enemy guns were stilled:
We had the Ledo Road to build.

Of course you found the Taj Mahal,
The loveliest building of them all.
Can't really say, lady. I was stuck
Far beyond Shing with a QM truck.
Monsoon was rugged there, hot and wet,
Nothing to do but work and sweat.
And dry was the dust upon my mouth
As steadily big "cats" roared on south,
Over the ground where Japs lay killed:
We had the Ledo Road to build.

You've been gone two years this Spring,
Didn't you see a single thing?
Never saw much but the moon on
A Burmese temple around Mainghwan,
And silver transports high in the sky,
Thursday River and the swift Tanai,
And Hukawng Valley coming all green,
Those are the only sights I've seen.
Did our job, though, like God willed:
We had the Ledo Road to build.

-- Sgt. Smith Dawless


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